I’d expect that about one in ten of “unique experiences at a wedding” have to do with one’s own wedding. A drunk relative or friend, a cake with other people’s name on it, bees in the flowers, forgotten vows, wardrobe malfunctions, etc. While each wedding is unique, and each wedding disaster is also unique, I’d have to say my experience around my wedding was one-in-a-million.
My fiancé and I were both from South Florida. Although we spent most of our time in New York City — we had met on a flight from La Guardia to Miami. A Florida wedding was her dream and I still had a lot of friends down there, so we contacted some folks we knew who had a TV studio in Boca Raton — a big, open space about 60 miles north of my mom’s house. They agreed to host the wedding and we decided on an August 31, 1992, wedding date, and kicked off the planning period. We had to locate a rabbi who would preside over an unaffiliated and very non-religious couple, we had to decide on food and then locate caterers — a mobile pit bar-b-cue, decide on and find musicians — an oh-so-tropical steel drum band, and select appropriately casual wedding attire. All of that went surprisingly smoothly.
We asked our best friends to be our “besties” — they would be the extent of the bridal party as we were going to take our vows at the top of a narrow staircase. Both accepted without hesitation.
By June, the plan was well in place, the moving parts all settled, and we continued to live our lives working and preparing for that “special day.” We even anticipated South Florida’s big, predictable afternoon thunderstorms. We were ready to go.
As the day approached, we began making final plans for the bridal shower and bachelor party, the rehearsal dinner, and our honeymoon. Late August is well into hurricane season in the tropics, but there hadn’t yet been any named storms that year. We were confident that we’d pull it off without a problem.
On August 16, reports of the first tropical depression of the year started coming in. Tropical depressions came and went frequently that time of year, so we didn’t think much of it. I was planning to drive from New York to Florida the next week, arriving in time to stop by the bridal shower that was scheduled for Saturday evening. I had done the drive a number of times and knew it well. It was all going according to plan.
At the same time I was preparing for my journey, the August 16 tropical depression evolved into the years’ first tropical storm and was given the name Andrew. Continuing its journey west across the Atlantic, it was still nothing to worry about. After all, most summers were full of named storms — for example, 2005’s Katrina was the 11th named storm that year.
I loaded up my car and hit the road, both looking forward to, and dreading, the next few weeks. My anticipation and dread had nothing to do with stormy weather. No, I was an avowed and confirmed bachelor — this was my first wedding at age 34. The benefits of marriage excited me. But the drawbacks scared the hell out of me.
I arrived in South Florida on August 22nd, nearly a week after the tropical depression was first reported. By now, Hurricane Andrew was strengthening rapidly. Over the next 24 hours, it would metastasize into a huge category 5 storm and would threaten the Bahamas. But that was still a day away. We had all lived through many hurricane watches and hurricane warnings, and knew that neither meant certain doom. A warning meant “prepare,” it didn’t mean “panic,” although the breathless reporting on local television news would have you think otherwise.
I made my cameo at the bridal shower, then slinked off into the shadows, visiting a few of my friends down in southwest Miami. By the time I got home that afternoon, the watch had become a warning and the news folks were getting more and more dramatic. It was time to start taking this storm seriously — which meant acquiring the necessary staples to get through a few days without power, locating and organizing the hurricane shutters, and packing some key necessities. Still, these were preparatory measures and landfall in our front yard was far from a foregone conclusion.
Hurricanes are predictable at a macro level. If you look at the cone-of-danger forecasts that they show on weather reports, a prediction generally has a level of accuracy of about 100 miles a day or so out. But that is a macro level. In a metropolis like Miami, 100 miles of coastline encompasses five or six million people, forcing a fairly large mobilization of labor and supplies from stores to private homes. Concern grows as the storm approaches, building into a crescendo of panic during the last 24 hours — when the actual evacuations begin.
Television and radio personalities talk breathlessly about what could happen in a few hours. Cameras show a weatherman on the beach in the Bahamas, hat being blown off his head, as he tries to stand in the face of the storm and its horizontal rain. Trees fall on houses, taking down power lines and wrecking cars. Power transformers explode in bright flashes. Streets flood. But still - that’s in the Bahamas, not Miami, and the storm could still swing to the north, only brushing up against the Florida coast.
Sunday morning came — August 24, one week before the wedding — and it became more certain that South Florida was in the path of a major, category 5 storm. Forecasts had it heading straight for my fiancé’s house in southern Broward County, about halfway between my mom’s house near Kendall and the wedding venue in Boca Raton. We got up early the next morning deciding that staying at my mom’s house, far away from the projected path, was the wisest choice. We boarded and shuttered her house, boarded her mother’s condo, and then drove south to my aunt’s house, boarding it up when we got there. Then we drove the final five miles south to my mom’s.
The forecasts at that time had the storm tracking to the north, so we figured we’d be safest down south. We had my mom’s place boarded up by dusk and were finally able to relax. We hunkered in, ready to wait it out 30 miles south of what was supposed to be its epicenter.
As the storm approached Florida, its path shifted. Instead of turning north and riding the coast, it veered to the south, the eye of the storm passing within 5 miles of my mom’s house. It also slowed, meaning that the most powerful part of the storm, the eye-wall, would batter large areas of homes and businesses for an extended time, spawning even-more-destructive tornados and flooding. The storm blew all night and into the next morning, but we had done our work well. The only damage that we had suffered was a broken bedroom window. We were lucky. We were fine.
In the morning, my fiancé and I walked outside to check things out. The sky was still grey, and the air was heavy with intense humidity. Our road was flooded, and a big tree up the block had fallen, covering half the street. The cars looked ok, nothing damaged there apparently, and the house looked not much worse for the wear, all except for small pieces of something plastic embedded in the torn part of the patio screening. It was hot, and my fiancé and I were sweating in shorts and t-shirts. But instead of the full Florida dress uniform, which would have included flip-flops, we wore full sneakers not wanting to step on anything that could cut or electrocute us. All in all, my mom’s neighborhood looked pretty OK, and soon the power company was out dealing with the wires that got knocked down. Our power was on within a few hours.
The same couldn’t be said for areas south of us. As close as Kendall Drive, a scant two miles away, the destruction was intense. I tried to call my best man, but the phone lines were out — few had cellphones back then. We removed the hurricane shutters and started the long drive north, taking the shutters off my aunt’s house, checking in with my soon-to-be mother-in-law, and finally taking the shutters off of her unscathed house in south Broward.
The radio reports were pretty foreboding. The area south of Bird Road, which was one mile north of my mom’s house, was closed — you needed a local ID to get in. Fortunately, my drivers license was local and sufficient. The entire county was to be closed from 10pm to 6am. No one in or out between those hours, no one on the road between those hours. The police were concerned about looting, and wanted to keep a lid on things during the initial phases of the recovery.
The next morning, early, we filled a couple of coolers with ice, picked up some bottled water, and drove south to see how our friends did. All of my closest friends in Miami lived south of Kendall Drive — in the areas where significant damage occurred. Their neighborhood was only a couple of miles from where the most dangerous part of the storm, the eye-wall, passed.
Fortunately, they were all safe, but their homes suffered significant damage. Power was a couple of weeks from returning. The stores that were open were completely out of important food and building supplies. My fiancé and I made lists, and agreed to bring down what we could from Broward County which wasn’t under curfew. This went on through the next weekend, and we weren’t sure of what the effect on our wedding, to be held in just a couple of days, was going to be.
The area looked like a war zone — storm detritus all over the road, flooding, and smashed windows everywhere. It was sunny and humid — 95 degrees in the shade — and things were starting to smell. The people on the street looked dazed and confused. Some places had blue tarps covering roofs, others had large X’s and OK’s spray painted on their sides. Siding on buildings and houses were ripped off. Broken things — storefronts, signs, traffic lights, trees — were everywhere. In the distance, there was this square building with small holes in it - you could see through the holes. Turns out that it was a mausoleum, and that all of the caskets had been blown out. God knows to where.
We pulled into my best man’s house and honked. He and his wife came out to talk to us. No air conditioning or fans, no ice, no breeze, and a mess to clean up. We left a cooler of ice and a flat of water with them, taking their empty coolers to bring back full tomorrow. We made a couple of other deliveries to friends nearby, and then went back to my best man’s house to lend a hand. In the end, at least my friends were safe and unhurt, even if their homes had suffered some significant damage.
Phone service was down all over Dade County. In addition to my best man and several other friends, our rabbi lived in the heavily-damaged zone. Like my friends, the rabbi’s phone was out. But unlike my friends, we didn’t have his address and his synagogue was closed, meaning that we had no way to know whether he survived the storm or whether he would be in attendance at our wedding. We actually weren’t sure until the rehearsal, where he appeared, tired, but happy to be there.
Another wedding tradition, my bachelor party, was altered by the storm. Unable to go out to a local tavern to celebrate my upcoming marriage — because no nearby taverns were open — I drove from friend to friend with a cooler full of ice cold beer, providing a short, cold respite from the stifling, Herculean tasks at hand.
Below the curfew line, the moon was just a waning crescent and cast only the barest of light, meaning that each neighborhood was nearly pitch black and each house was shrouded in frightening darkness. The humidity was thick in the pungent air, the sounds of night insects and distant sirens punctuating the silence. Roaches and beetles, made heavy by the large amount of rotting food around, rolled obesely down the sidewalks. Things were just out of place — stuff in trees that shouldn’t be there, stuff on the ground that shouldn’t be there, and stuff on roofs that shouldn’t be there. People were universally dressed in the “air-conditioning is out, the power is out, and I’ve been working all day” uniform of sweaty, dirty t-shirts and shorts, and by now, flip-flops.
Slowly, the pieces of our wedding came together. We found flowers — one of my fiancé’s best friends was a flower wholesaler and pulled off a miracle. The bar-b-cue truck confirmed that they would be there, as did the steel drum band. Our cake was going to be ready. Everything was a “go.”
Sunday came and our guests started filtering in. The wedding went off without a hitch. The happy couple married, we spoke to the assembled group, realizing that our wedding had become much more to them than just the marriage of old friends. It became a true celebration of endurance and survival. Until then, Hurricane Andrew was the most devastating storm to hit the United States. Since then, only the unmitigated disaster of Hurricane Katrina has surpassed it.
But on this Sunday in 1992, we were all there together. We celebrated our survival. Our community had endured, coming together bruised and battered, but still intact. As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Our wedding, one week after Hurricane Andrew made my family, my friends, and my community stronger than ever.